Josh Glenn harbors a special fascination for junk, clutter, stuff. So do many of his friends, and friends of his friends. So it was that his new book, Taking Things Seriously, came to be.
As its subhead attests, Taking Things Seriously is a visual and literary curio cabinet, a scattershot collection of “75 objects with unexpected significance.” There’s a ’70’s hair salon robot, a porn fiend’s old cigar box, a one-eyed ceramic frog that sits on its owners’ soap dish, a Velveeta box, a T-shirt, a remarkably well-endowed wooden horse, the arm of a cigarette-burned couch, a needlepoint work that simply says “THOUGHTS,” a World War I-vintage helmet, a dried up turtle’s tail, a stick, a pile of dirt, ceramic dogs, nail clippings, a wooden Santa who’s unsteady on his feet. Collectively, it’s a fairly unimpressive collection, as far as monetary value goes. But, to these objects’ owners, they’re the most treasured, valuable items they own. (If any of this sounds mildly awesome, swing by the book release party tomorrow night at Pazzo Books in Rozzie Square.)
Glenn, a former Globe staffer, editor of Hermenaut, and current Ideas blogger, met me for drinks at JJ Foley’s last night. We camped out by the Big Buck Hunter machine, thereby dodging another fucking dreadful Sox game, and talked about Things.
“For years, my entire adult life, whenever I’d go to somebody’s office, their study, their studio, their workspace, office, living room, whatever, I always gravitate towards that one object they’ve got on their shelf or the mantelpiece that’s an unusual thing,” he says. “It might be a rock or a stick or a tarnished little statuette or a bent or broken or burned old toy. Somebody of an older generation would’ve put something nice there, like a Ming vase or something, but somebody of my generation has this weird half-destroyed toy from the 50’s or 60’s, and it’s displayed like a precious artifact. And I always ask about it, and there’s always an amazing story connected to it, and you get insight into that person that you couldn’t get otherwise.”
Glenn was at a party in New York one night, and spied the book Where’d You Get Those? He turned to the co-editor of Taking Things Seriously, graphic designer Carol Hayes, and said, “We’ve gotta do a book called Where’d you Get That?”
He and Hayes each reached out to their friends for submissions, asking them to share meaningful objects for the book. “A lot of them didn’t have anything we wanted for the book – their objects were significant, but not in an interesting way, to us. We had to say no to a lot of things that people’s grandparents had given them, or family heirlooms. We said no to a lot of travel souvenirs, remains, both human and animal. And that’s very hard – you contact a friend of yours and you say, give me your most significant object for my book, and he says, OK, here’s my cat’s ashes, and I have to say, that’s not good enough. I think there’s at least two or three people who’ll never talk to me again after this.”
The process of unearthing people’s most valued possessions, and asking them to explain just why they’re valued, ended up becoming a slightly unsettling exercise in psychology and anthropology. “It turns out,” Glenn says, “and I didn’t know this going in, that I like things we like in really primitive or tribal or superstitious ways – totems, fossils, talismans, animal figures, dolls, these are all things that, a thousand years ago, people were attaching deep significance to. And really, as enlightened 21st Century westerners, we should not be finding these things significant anymore. We should not be putting things in our house that represent the natural world in significant way to us – we shouldn’t have a rock or a stick or a bear or a pig figure that we keep around because it represents the natural world to us. We’re beyond that. And yet, people do it, and it’s fascinating. We shouldn’t keep dolls from our childhood. You grow up and you realize that a doll’s not human. It’s not alive, it doesn’t think, it doesn’t love you, and yet people do keep those things. We shouldn’t have good luck charms. We’re rational people. We don’t believe in luck. You don’t keep a talisman around. And yet, a lot of people I know do.”
What does that say about us, I asked, that we insist on clinging to irrationality, that we hold on to a dried up turtle’s tail or a parrot in the freezer? Are we not all we imagine ourselves to be? “This French philosopher I quote in the introduction, Bruno Latour, wrote this book that I’ve never actually read,” Glenn says, “the title of which is We Have Never Been Modern. I think that’s true. We are completely, we are all savages with a thin veneer of enlightened, civilized forward-thinking on top. We’re constantly backsliding from the sixteenth and seventeenth century. I’m starting to think that was just a trend. It was just a fad, the Enlightenment. It lasted a couple hundred years, and it’s ending now. On the other hand, what we’re learned from postmodern thinkers, there’s a lot of backwards and regressive things about the Enlightenment, about allowing rationality to be the only rule. It’s complicated, and there’s no right answer, yet. I’ll provide it eventually, if I ever actually write a book.”